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Group of people at a Māori welcome or powhiri
Massey University Vice-Chancellor Jan Thomas (centre) attends her pōwhiri (welcome) in 2017. Author provided

Honouring Te Tiriti means ‘getting into the stream together’ — so this vice-chancellor has become a student again

As first-year students flooded onto campuses around the country this week, gripped with uncertainty and curiosity about their new lives, I too returned to university to learn.

For the first time since what feels like forever, but in reality was 1997 when I finished my PhD, I am now a bona fide university student.

It’s confronting to go back as an undergraduate online student (I’m doing a BA, through my own university, Massey University). But at the same time, it’s exciting and new. And for me, with a science background, stepping into the humanities is a whole other world.

The last time I was a student I used the scientific method; I tested, palpated and measured as a veterinary science undergraduate. In the humanities, it feels more fluid, more open to interpretation. As Vice-Chancellor I’ve known this, but to now be in it, well … I’ve surprised myself, because I’ve found I really like it.

I haven’t yet told my mother I’m doing a BA — she’ll find out when she reads this (sorry, Mum). I’ve been nervous about telling her; as a scientist in a family full of humanities graduates, I’ve always been a bit of a black sheep and was enthusiastically critical of my siblings’ choices as a youngster.

But increasingly I began to recognise our different disciplines have different ways of looking at the world, and that’s incredibly valuable for critical and creative thinking.

Massey University Vice-Chancellor Jan Thomas in a graduation procession
Back to class: Jan Thomas at last year’s graduation procession in Palmerston North. Author provided

Into the third space

I’m now stepping into a new space. In the Aboriginal world, in my native Australia, they talk about the “third space” — a place where white people and Indigenous people come together to begin to understand the other’s perspective.

You don’t have to agree to it, but it’s essential to understand it, otherwise you’re constantly in tension. The two separate worlds just keep flowing on in parallel, and nothing ever truly changes.

My first course is He Tirohanga Taketake: Māori Perspectives, taught by Te Rā Moriarty at Te Putahi-a-Toi. We’re studying perspectives from Māori authors, through Māori teachers, alongside Māori and non-Māori students, gaining a deeper understanding of concepts such as tapu, mana, and whakapapa.

We’re examining social structures within Māoridom, the influence of colonisation, and the Māori world view on things such as the environment, family and personal characteristics such as humility and respect for kaumātua.


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I’m asking myself as I go, if I am standing in a Māori person’s shoes, what does the world look like?

Well, it looks pretty different. And that’s why I believe fostering understanding is essential to constructing the way forward together.

Although I managed to pass te reo Māori to level 5 at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa over three years, I feel I’ve still got so far to go. I’m not even dipping a full toe into the water yet — maybe just the toenail.

Whare kai building
The whare kai, part of Te Putahi-a-Toi, on Massey University’s Manawatū campus. Author provided

Strength and direction

The world has changed dramatically over the past five to ten years, and many businesses and institutions now have strong aspirations to incorporate Te Tiriti o Waitangi into how they operate. Massey is no exception.

But it’s got to be more than just lip service, more than just te reo greetings in corporate emails. If we’re going to get the partnership right (and I recognise there’s a better word than “partnership” — perhaps fusing or blending), the responsibility has to fall on all of us.

Everyone has to work on it. And for me, entering the third space, I’m not trying to “be Māori”, but I know I’ve got to understand Māori perspectives and why others might want certain things.


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Sure, it might help me avoid giving offence, and that’s essential. But more than that, we might find areas of common interest, things that make meaning for both parts of the partnership. I know if I’m going to lead a university that upholds diversity, equity and excellence in Aotearoa, I need to engage fully.

There are te reo Māori terms for the sides of the stream and the middle of the stream. The sides are “au taha” — the side currents, where the water doesn’t flow swiftly. In the middle, it’s “au kaha”, which has more strength, direction and forward momentum.

Historically, we’ve had Pākehā on one side of the stream and Māori on the other. We’ve got to get into the middle of the stream together, au kaha, and move forward together down the river.

Don’t be satisfied paddling in the easy bits on the side, but find moments to meet in the middle. Get right into the stream, and be brave enough to work in that (sometimes) turbulent place.

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